Fear driving opposition to supervised consumption site, says psychology prof

The debate over harm reduction services has heated up after Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) chose not to move forward with a proposed supervised drug consumption site in the City of Richmond earlier this week.

Zach Walsh, a psychology professor at UBC, says fear is the driving factor when people oppose this type of service.

“They maybe have some misinformation about it, and then they say part of it is coming here, they maybe don’t realize how much it already is there,” he said. “They maybe don’t realize that it is part of the solution, not the problem.”

The federal government says supervised consumption services save lives and benefit communities. They provide a safe, clean space for people to bring their own drugs to use, in the presence of trained staff, in turn preventing accidental overdoses and resducing the chances of infectious diseases.

Last year more than 2,500 people were killed by toxic drug overdoses in B.C. Meanwhile, only one death was recorded at one of these harm reduction sites.

The government says supervised consumption sites offer a range of evidence-based harm reduction services, such as drug checking and access to important health and social services, including substance use treatment for those who are ready.

Walsh says he thinks factors like B.C.’s ongoing toxic drug crisis and the marginalization of certain groups over time have shaped people’s mentalities and taught them to look away from this type of solution.

“I think there’s maybe a lack of courage on the part of people who don’t want to look this crisis in the face, and they think that if they avoid the solution then the problem will go away,” he said.

“We’ve had decades and decades of stigmatization and refusing services and mistreatment of people who struggle with problematic substance use. That’s what got us here in the first place”

Walsh says a more compassionate approach moving forward is the way to deal with this problem.

The professor says people are scared of the terrible drug epidemic, and they are scared of the death and suffering.

“I think in some ways in the core, fear of seeing people sick and suffering because it reminds them that it could be them,” Walsh says.

The federal government tells us how harm reduction services helps keep thousands of Canadians alive each year. It says, when properly established, these sites and services:

  • reduce the risk of accidental overdose, because people are not rushing or using alone;
  • connect people to social services like housing, employment assistance, and food banks;
  • provide or connect people to healthcare and treatment;
  • reduce public drug use and discarded drug equipment;
  • reduce spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV;
  • reduce strain on emergency medical services, so they can focus on other emergencies; and
  • provide space for people to connect with staff and peers, which can help a person moderate their drug use and decide to pursue treatment.

With files from Michael Williams

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